Sunday, May 29, 2005

Imagineer This

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow A few years back, I asked printmaker Rosemary Feit Covey what she thought of fellow printmaker Edward Gorey (of Gashlycrumb Tinies fame, &c). She told me something I didn't understand at the time: she had a hard time appreciating Gorey's work because she got too caught up in analyzing his technique. It was a problem she had with art in general, but especially with the work of other wood engravers. At the time, the only art I understood was writing, and, well, I was a hack. Okay, a worse hack. But now I think I finally get her point. And man, is it ever annoying. Cory Doctorow's 2003 debut, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is one of the most original novels I've read this year. It's also one of the most predictable. It's a question of content versus form: I found the content to be fresh, but the form was strictly by the numbers. Here's the deal (and you'll find this, or something nearly like it, in just about every self-help writing book you'll grab off the shelf): (Hey, this might be a spoiler. If you care about that, skip the numbers and read on.)
  1. Start with a likable protagonist.
  2. Throw some adversity his way.
  3. Throw some more adversity his way.
  4. Bring him low, very low.
  5. Lower still.
  6. Mmm . . . no, lower still.
  7. Has he lost everything yet? Good!
  8. At the last moment, wrench him from the jaws of defeat . . . oh, and make sure he has learned something in the process.
Okay, there it is, my one and only gripe. A story this fresh -- and Doctorow couldn't manage to throw in a surprise? Can you say formulaic? This isn't a negative review. Really. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a cool book, and now that I've gotten all that off my chest, I'm going to tell you why you* need to buy it. Our hero, Julius, lives in an era where death and disease are ancient history, and none of the essentials are in short supply. Money has been replaced by the only things that matter in this post-scarcity world: esteem; prestige; reputation. Whuffie, in other words. This novel's universe has all the trappings of cyberpunk without any of the drear. Imagine Gibson on Ecstacy and Prozac. Peoples' brains are permanently online (quite convenient, since they're always checking each other's Whuffie to see who's top dog), and by periodically making a backup of one's personality, immortality is assured. If you die, your most recent backup gets plopped into a force-grown clone. Told you Down and Out had all the trappings. They call this the Bitchun Society, by the way -- as in, bitchun wave, dude. So what do folks who have everything do to keep busy? They stoke their Whuffie, naturally. (No money, but humans are as greedy as ever.) One way to build Whuffie is to find new and better ways to entertain the fun-seeking multitudes. Disney World has long been Julius's port in the storm, a place he returns to whenever his life hits the skids. He loves this place with an irrational passion, the way a Texan loves Texas. Now he's living out his lifetime dream: he has become a member of the Ad-hocracy that runs Liberty Square and Tom Sawyer Island at Disney World. It's Julius's dream job, and it's one hell of a good gig for racking up Whuffie. The Haunted Mansion is part of Julius's domain, as is The Hall of Presidents. But not for long, for the aggressively Whuffie-mongering Debra, seasoned veteran of Disneyland Beijing, has her sights on The Hall of Presidents -- and maybe all of Liberty Square. Sinister intrigue . . . murder (as much as anyone can get murdered in this world) . . . love . . . betrayal. If this is starting to sound a bit like hard-boiled fic, there's a good reason. I've read lots of SF novels that tried to ape hard-boiled fic, but this is the only one I've read that works, largely because Doctorow knows better than to follow the genre too closely. Down and Out is a murder mystery in the same way The Amazing Lebowski is a detective movie. He has a sense of fun that reminds me of certain other genre writers, like Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen. Parting thought: Doctorow must really love Walt Disney World to have written a story like this, and it must have been painful as hell having to avoid all those copyrighted characters. You won't find Mickey or Donald in these pages. Oh, just think of the set pieces Doctorow had to forfeit to avoid getting sued. D. *All of you, except for my parents. I know you guys wouldn't like this. Oh, and those of you who have already read it? I guess you're off the hook, too.


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